Friday, June 21, 2013

Maple Walnut Summer

I found it – my mother’s occasional personal splurge when it came to ice cream. Chocolate might do it for the rest of us, vanilla, strawberry, three flavors – but the ice cream treat my mother occasionally required was black walnut. Sometimes it gets called maple walnut, and I looked for some yesterday in my neighborhood frozen food cases. Eureka!

Nothing much changed for my mother at the June end of each school year. She still had to do the daily load of laundry, the house cleaning, the preparation of my father’s dinner and ours. Summer lunches for us just added to the work she was accustomed to the rest of the year. No ironing of school uniforms, though! The sacrifice she and my father made for private education certainly made for a busy life.

Without a driver’s license my mother was limited for much of her life to our family outings for her distraction. Every other Sunday was a day-long trip to our four grandparents. Secret: there was a young doctor in New Orleans who paid her some attentions when she had just graduated from high school. Her choice of my father, though, the brother of a classmate, was one she made and, but for her children and sisters, no one would have heard her say a word against life with him.

Might her life have been different with that doctor or a lawyer or a college professor? She might have thought so. What about a summer house? A dream come true. The chance at a job that would take her regularly out of her house? Not in the stars for her.

For the first time in fifty years I had maple walnut ice cream last night. I like to think that pleased her.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Father's Day Weekend

At pater infelix, non iam pater, “Icare,” dixit,
“Icare,” dixit, “ubi es? qua te regione requiram?”
“Icare,” dicebat...

For someone translating a poem from a language other than his own, there is a joy in repetition.

“Icare,” dixit...
“Icare,” dixit...
“Icare,” dicebat...

“Icarus!” he called...
“Icarus!” he called...
“Icarus!” he kept calling...

Destined to sit in a Dartmouth College classroom for a Classical Association of New England summer institute, I had work to do one June weekend six years ago. Kindly invited to visit friends at their home on Martha’s Vineyard, I needed to spend some time preparing for an upcoming mini-course on the Latin poetry of Ovid scheduled to be taught by a Dartmouth professor.

The Friday afternoon ferry ride to Oak Bluffs, then, found me – incongruously – with a Latin text in hand.

It was an odd moment, feeling the ferry move out of Falmouth harbor and opening the book on my lap to the ancient story of Daedalus and Icarus.

For someone who had last pored over these Latin lines as a high school senior, there was a joy in being able to recall easily how some of the words fell in place, how my Latin teacher had read through them for us in a pre-lection, even how my classmates and I had pieced together the words and phrases in awkward English renderings for homework.

I could have worked on other passages from Ovid’s collection of mythological tales called the Metamorphoses. I had actually made a start on the story of Apollo and Daphne, but the waves, the wind, the spray around me as I sat on the upper deck of the ferry suggested I search out some sea-borne plot.

What better than those scenes of a father fitting handcrafted wings onto the shoulders of his son Icarus? What more apt passage than the ultimately vain warnings by Daedalus that his son not fly too low over the waves of the sea or too high near the sun?

The Sunday two days later would be Father’s Day. What is a father’s job more truly than to fit his son with the hope of finding a life away from the labyrinthine confinements of a childhood home?

My reading of the Metamorphoses progressed over Father’s Day weekend that June six years ago, and I too was changing. Returning to a text that I had met long ago, I was beginning to recognize a truth about fathers and sons, about home and risk that I may have been too young to claim before then.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I Bought the Smallest Slice I Could

I did it. As small a slice as I could ask the gentleman behind the cheese case to cut.

I watched him use the cheese wire and halve the smallest wedge of Cob Hill Ascutney Mountain on display.

My anniversary gesture.

Eight dollars.

For the past four years I have hardly made a trip to Whole Foods without spotting the Cob Hill cheese in the glass case. Ever waiting for the sale sign that would bring it within my price range, I have only purchased this cheese two or three times before. It is never a sale item.

Whole Foods cheeses are a two-income treat to which I rarely treat myself.

It is early June, however. Few vacation moments match the Saturday morning four years ago when I raised my eyes from the tombstones of a roadside churchyard in Cornish, New Hampshire. In clear view across the Connecticut River was Mount Ascutney in neighboring Vermont.

There are times when you ask the universe for something with all your heart. That morning in June, I could not stop myself from asking for what I wanted – a life in which the beauty I saw in that vista could fill my heart. The future of your heart matters when you have undone the way your life looks the year before.

All this in a raw cow’s milk cheese from Vermont? Yep.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Summer Air, Open Windows

At age 19 I left a home in New Orleans in which I had lived only one year. It was my family’s first year in a house with central air conditioning, a first year of hearing a fan begin whirring at unpredictable hours of the day and night, signaling the arrival of magically cool air. My mother in particular was happy to have cotton blankets to draw up to her chin on nights in July when the fan and cold air seemed never to stop.

My father, practical as ever, installed two large window units in strategic places in the new house. A housing inspector for the federal government, he knew that central air conditioning could suddenly give out. If my mother had to, she could turn on the window unit in her bedroom and live in there for a day or two until the central air was repaired.

Come what may, she would not become like her mother, living with a handkerchief always in her hand to mop the perspiration around her forehead and neck as she sat quietly in a rocker next to open windows in rural Louisiana.

And that was precisely the life that I was choosing when I chose seminary. It was an older Louisiana toward which I was heading. It was not so much that air conditioners were unreasonably expensive at the time. The bedrooms for guests to the seminary each had a window unit that rumbled out cold air for a visitor’s comfort. All of the seminary staff had the same window units in their own living quarters.

Tradition simply suggested that the large exhaust fans that for years had moved air through the high-ceilinged hallways off which the seminarians’ rooms opened might suit us as we started this new life. Why say we could not live in the 1970s as generations of priests entering before us had lived?

Public areas like the chapel and the library and the community room and the dining room did benefit from central air conditioning. The main adapting before us seminarians came at night when we retired to our rooms. Adapting to those nights and waking in the morning to savor any coolness that lingered around open windows is a vivid memory.

Sitting in a rocker next to the window and cradling a morning prayer book in our laps, we unwittingly recalled our grandmothers.

That memory makes the start of New England summer this particular weekend not just something to endure. It makes my open windows an opening onto a history I get to keep remembering.